May 26, 2008


i bought the tummy trilogy in 1999 and calvin trillin almost immediately became my most favoured writer about food. like the best, he is as concerned about the context (cultural, personal, historical) as he is about the food. or, as mfk fisher put it, "When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and it is all one," because "there is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk."

in the trilogy, trillin writes rapturously about an unnamed greenwich village restaurant close to his apartment run by an unusual owner with a rigorous cooking and patronage policy and an enormous, multi-page, highly eclectic menu. it sounded like the archetypal Secret Restaurant In the Sky—eccentric, with unusual food and a distinctive style. entree gained not by vigorous applications of cash, but by local knowledge and the accumulation of time. (just like the restaurant john mcphee describes in "brigade de cuisine," the final essay in in giving good weight, a marvelous essay collection whose title piece is about the union square greenmarket). trillin could only write about the restaurant on condition of keeping it anonymous; this stymied and frustrated me until early 2002, when he revealed all (including the name) in a new yorker article. shopsin's was about to move to a new location after thirty years and, for the first time, sought publicity.

in spring 2003, i went to new york and, on a slow morning, went down to greenwich village to look for shopsin's in its new location on carmine street. i arrived just after they opened for lunch, there was no one there, and i had the most amazing chicken tortilla and bean soup. i thought about shopsin's again on december 28, 2007, while seeking a place for lunch; i decided then that shopsin's would always be there so i could just hit it up on my next trip to new york. naturally, it closed a few days after.

yesterday, lauren from atlanta came back from the aspen library with a small stack of DVDs—among them was a 2004 documentary by matt mahurin called i like killing flies, about shopsin's in the time of transition. it's a great film, well-directed, well-edited, with a superb, well-contained subject. the most visually-compelling part of the film is how it illustrates the way spaces form themselves around institutions of any size. the original shopsin's was tiny and seated just over 30 people; over three decades, it accumulated a crust of paraphernalia and objects that seemed light only by dint of the gradualness of its accretion. stripped of the stuff, the old restaurant looked naked; the new restaurant looked like a person wearing someone else's clothes.

more valuable was the exploration of something done right—not in the sense of something done by rote or process but something done right deep down to the essence of being; great ventures by great people. kenny shopsin explains that

it gets into a subject that really has not much to do with me but has to do with humanity ... the great lack in america, the great belief that was our flaw once we lost our christian backgrounds or whatever the fuck we had. we never intellectually, as a country, tried to figure out what the meaning of life is. and we still don't ... not that that's easy to achieve. am i with my busy work seeking to inject meaning into my life? the way that i choose to do this is to choose an arbitrary stupid goal and pursue it with vigor; and what happens to you in that pursuit is your life. i understand that the goal is stupid, but it's not stupid to pursue because it's the only way you can inject meaning into your life. otherwise you're left with this great 'why bother?'
craft (whether the production of mingei, or in engineering and the sciences, or in cooking), with its gradual accumulation of incremental technical competency, has been one pathway for people to get to the meaning of life.

May 24, 2008


maps, annotations, and wearable. do we want one? yes. yes, we do.

May 20, 2008

leaving and arriving

the last four days have been distinctly surreal. leaving a totalizing job is a wrenching experience, the more so if you have had, last minute, a bit of a change of heart.

i had dinner in mountain view with aaron and jini; the streets were full of people recovering from work, happy, talking to friends, drinking wine, browsing in stores. it was unseasonably warm. the late afternoon had been a blur of leavetaking and salvaging emails and files. i had the distinct sensation time was running out with many things left to do, yet i was compelled and wanted to spend time with as many people as possible. when i got back from dinner, i had about 45 minutes before the last valencia shuttle arrived, and waited outside reading the cunning man. it was a funny feeling, heavy and light at the same time.

on saturday morning, i woke up early and walked out to the farmers' market. it is cherry season now, and piles of them sat gleaming in the sun. i ate a sample strawberry and listened to the counter folks talk about j.i. rodale and began to miss san francisco even before really leaving. someone in noe valley showed up to buy my feather bed, then i went out again to buy chewy sourdough pizza breads from the bennet valley bread lady. it was the first half of a valedictory lap around the city. dave showed up mid-morning and we drove up to north beach to meet zach and the rest of the party. there was some 3 on 3 basketball, shotguns of tecate, then a long drive to stinson beach. along the way, the most expensive dried fruit and nuts ever. another day of no food. tecate and pacifico, cold water and surf, tans. dinner at pakwan, drinks at bourbon and branch (amazing martinis, the austrian) then la trappe (a phenomenal unibroue ephemere), then back to zach and catherine's for liar's dice.

sunday morning, i was up early to sell yet more stuff. i dropped off two boxes of stuff at the goodwill box, then walked down to the safeway at 30/mission in search of a coinstar machine (which i didn't find). this being a true valedictory lap, i stopped in mitchell's in search of ice cream, then walked up cortland for a kefte sandwich at progressive grounds before catching the 23 bayview into the shop. refinished the top of the chair, carved out the rest of the bowl, and made a very awkward leavetaking. john was sweet and dropped me off at the hospital. it was 6.30pm and still light, and i walked home, stopping at ritual along the way. around 8pm, people started trickling in. pelly, zach, mary zhang, may, halsey, peterson all showed up. we made our way through a case of tecate, and then i made curry thai noodles. i went to bed at 1 after tearing the pictures off the walls.

monday morning, up at 5.30. the room felt empty, and i folded up the last of the linens and took out the last of the trash. the bags were huge and reminded me again of why i want to travel light. the line at the united check-in was glacial, then the line for security stretched almost to another terminal. flight to san diego delayed nearly an hour, then flight from san diego to denver delayed 40 minutes. i just caught the denver-aspen flight, but of course the bags didn't make it. susan working picked me up from the airport. i met wyatt and whit, the other two wood interns (stories to come). we moved stuff, we did a grocery run, we had pizza and beer, we came back. i think i will like this.

May 15, 2008

true names

i was up near toronto last week at the university of guelph, hanging out with the people from the biodiversity institute of ontario. paul hebert, who's the director of BIO, is one of the main proponents of DNA barcoding as a way of identifying organisms (major paper available here, for those so inclined). the project currently consuming the bulk of his time is the international barcode of life, an attempt to sample all (or most) species on the planet, sequence a reference portion of the DNA of those samples and construct a library of these reference DNA sequences. his facility at guelph has a group of passionate, intense staff, a workflow, a really nice bioinformatics platform, and partnerships in place to sequence hundreds of thousands of samples each year.

DNA barcoding and identification techniques like it represent a fundamental change in our orientation toward the world: we begin to move away from the imposition of presumed parameters and toward learning what might be called the true names of things. for the longest time, we've organised the world of organisms into groups, each composed of individuals that we observe to be more like each other than they are like other organisms -- taxonomists examine morphology, habits, and other characteristics, then divide up the world based on what these examinations reveal. these groups nest within each other (the hierarchy of groups is kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), species being the lowest level of group organization. the binomial latin name (a naming system introduced by linnaeus two centuries ago) is usually how we refer precisely to an organism that is a member of a species. the first part indicates the genus, the second the species name; there are, for example, many types of maples (genus Acer) but Acer rubrum means you're talking about just the red or soft maple. it is the latter-day version of the naming of the animals (on which note, see this marvellous article).

the value of this exercise depends on there being at least one sequence of DNA in any major group of organisms that varies enough between species to be a robust identifier. for most eukaryotes, paul's operation sequences a short (648 basepair) section of cytochrome c oxidase subunit 1 (CO1) which is a part of the mitochondrial DNA -- the sequence then becomes that species's barcode. DNA is the group name that's written into the organism itself, and it identifies precisely -- the barcode as currently implemented is a short form of that true name that seems to identify relatively robustly for the species to which it has been applied.

the idea of a power-conferring true name is liberally sprinkled through the tradition of magic (i like best ursula le guin's earthsea, where magic is declarative and verbal and depends on systematic acquisition of the true names of the world. this is a particularly nice section from a wizard of earthsea). with a library of such reference barcodes, rapid, robust, and accurate identification of animals, bacteria, plants, viruses, and all manner of other things becomes possible just by sequencing the same part of the DNA of whatever sample you've collected, comparing that sequence to the reference library, and finding matches. there is obvious value in rapid, accurate identification. for example, it would revolutionise and dramatically increase the efficacy of programs for the control of vector-borne diseases; immediate applications can be found in natural resource management, water quality monitoring, climate change early warning, agriculture, and many other domains that concern us.

needless to say, the guild of academic biologists and taxonomists is debating the value and validity of this DNA barcoding exercise hotly.

May 13, 2008

brand elicitation

here's an interesting project: ask people what comes to mind when they see a brand, then show the results as a tag cloud with frequency indicated by size. the result is a real-time map offering online brand surveillance. all it needs is a time-slider (like the one in google earth) that allows viewers to navigate the histories of brand tag clouds.

looks like nike's not doing so well with the child labour and sweatshops though, admittedly, everyone does think they're big on shoes.

May 10, 2008

chair update: it's alive!

i've been trying to finish this side chair before leaving for aspen and i spent all of last weekend shaping the seat and back, then sanding them down. the back post and seatback are separate from the rest of the chair, so i glued those up last sunday and then started on the rest of the parts this week, finishing all of the pre-glueing sanding before getting into the shop today. i was all ready to glue, and then realized that i'd have to make clamping blocks for almost every piece since nothing in this chair is at right angles with anything else. after making those, i got ready to glue again, then remembered that i'd have to make the wedges for all the through tenons. i started glue-up around 3.30pm, beginning with the two sides of the chair frame, then connecting those with the midrib and the footrest. the seat is attached to the legs with mortise and tenon joints, two of which are fox-wedged. those last were fiddly to measure but worked out beautifully. here is the chair in clamps: